Consumer groups protest industry net neutrality talks

Two groups supporting strong network neutrality rules protested a new round of compromise talks involving technology and telecommunications companies by saying the talks don’t include organizations representing consumers.

Several companies attended new net neutrality negotiations, hosted by trade group the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), on Wednesday. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission hosted a series of compromise discussions since June, but the agency called off future discussions after Google and Verizon Communications released their own proposal on Aug. 9.

An ITI spokeswoman confirmed the new talks, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, but she did not disclose what companies attended the discussions.

The Wall Street Journal story said participants in the ITI talks included Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, Cisco Systems and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

Representatives of Microsoft and NCTA confirmed their participation, but declined further comment. The FCC was not involved, a spokeswoman there said.

“While we’re not involved in these new discussions, we’re glad that there is ongoing dialogue,” said Jen Howard, an FCC spokeswoman.

Other groups criticized the new talks. Instead of further industry discussions, the FCC should move to pass formal net neutrality rules, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior vice president and policy director at the Media Access Project, a media reform group. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has pushed for formal net neutrality rules after an appeals court in April struck down the agency’s attempt to enforce informal principles after Comcast slowed customers’ access to a peer-to-peer service.

“These ‘negotiations’ are illegitimate,” Schwartzman said in a statement. “They do not involve representatives of people who use the Internet for free expression and commerce, and they lack representation from the infant businesses that depend on an open Internet to build the future Ciscos, Microsofts, and Skypes.”

Free Press, another media reform group, also criticized the ITI talks. It’s time for the FCC to assert its authority over broadband, said Aparna Sridhar, Free Press policy counsel. An “uproar” over the Google and Verizon proposal shows that the public rejects secret net neutrality negotiations, she said.

“Industry deal-making is no substitute for responsible policymaking,” Sridhar added. “This latest effort by a few large companies to dictate the rules behind closed doors will not protect Internet users. Industry titans will propose rules that serve only their own interests.”

ITI, which represents IT companies including Microsoft, Dell and Apple, said more discussion is needed. Recent efforts by Google and others have made significant steps forward, Dean Garfield, ITI’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first in a series of discussions “aimed at developing Internet openness principles that can achieve broad cross-sector support,” Garfield said. “This new effort will build on [past] work to arrive at something that can achieve both public and private sector support and strike the balance of encouraging continued innovation and investment in the Internet.”